I remember flying into Moscow in 2007 with delicious misgivings. Brought up in America during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was always presented to me as the Factory of Godless Communism, and I knew I would never see the inside of it. But I was curious (a common response to Russia on the part of non-Russians everywhere then and now).
Then suddenly, after becoming a teacher of English as a Second Language, I had the chance. Russia was open. A job was offered to me in Moscow, and I accepted. With my head full of bleak old WWII films of dead, frozen Nazis slumped over their rifles, I half-expected to freeze to death myself, but I didn't mind. We landed at Sheremetyevo and my life was instantly transformed.
I had of course read faulty renditions of the great authors, but even with the Victorian lady Constance MacKenzie as translator (better than nothing, certainly), I had gained some idea about the world of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gogol, etc. Nureyev was alive and dancing and popping up occasionally in the West (of course, he defected in France, I believe), but most of all -- the key that unlocked my heart -- was when the great Soviet Olympic teams performed on American TV. Brumel, Borzov, Kharlemov, I saw them all. Olga Korbut did more to end the Cold War than Gorbachev . It was because she smiled, and in so doing won the hearts of the American people, who previously had assumed that the Soviet people did not know how to do such a thing.
But the girl I loved was Korbut's counterpart, Ludmilla Tourischeva. I fell head over heels because of her swarthy, stoical, oval face, the supple grace of her taut yet fluid body, and her flawless performances under pressure. I wondered what her life was like Behind the Iron Curtain. But I would never know. Or would I?
The need for English worldwide was, as the corporate crowd likes to say, a 'paradigm changer' for me. A thousand dire warnings preceded my departure. I had been told that at the border I would meet icy malevolence from the border guards, that the windy snows would be so bad that I would need to hang onto trees to keep from being tossed away to oblivion. And that the Russian people would be unfriendly at best, hostile at worst.
None of it was true. I will never forget the long car ride from the airport to my apartment in Выхино straight through the heart of the city -- late at night, but, the darkness beyond the lights aside, you would never have known it. Moscow just went on and on and on, wide awake, with plenty of men working on construction sites, which was something you would rarely, if ever, see in America at that hour.
I settled in right away but always pinched myself in amazement. "I am in Russia. R-u-s-s-i-a!" I would say to myself as I read the thousands of license plates. Next morning it was a long walk to the metro station. Back then, Выхино was the end station of the Purple Line; people would crowd from the oblast early in the morning, and as the ensuing mob pushed and crushed its way up the stairs and onto the platform, one could sense a pulsating mania, a bubbling frenzy welling amid the crowd. The trains came every several minutes, and each time there was a melee as people squeezed aboard. When I finally reached the edge of the platform, I knew I had to brace myself; otherwise, I could get pushed right over into the path of the train. The anticipation was like that in the famous battle scene from "Brave Heart,' the Mel Gibson film about Scotland's liberation from England. Getting on that train every morning allowed me to imagine what a medieval battlefield must have been like.
Then you would see the various 'vendors' and beggars up and down the aisle. They sold toys, trinkets, yo-yos, box cutters, flashlights -- anything you could imagine. You would see the deformed, the wildly disabled, the spastic and ghoulish (real or pretend) jitterbugging in your wake, seeking handouts. And old soldiers without legs wobbling along on wooden platforms with rattling wheels, swivelling on and off at the various stops like the acrobats they truly were.
I loved my old world apartment with its mass of slumbering volumes and tinkling chandeliers. And the balcony. In America they don't usually have balconies, and I always wanted one. I would go there to smoke, drink coffee or beer and gaze out at the strange, great, enigmatic city that, as I discovered, "does not believe in tears'.
My boss, Vita, was wonderful and remains a friend and collaborator on projects. I was at one point invited to teach a student at the offices of SNOB (big, well-funded project at the time) and JeeVee (a health and yoga oriented TV channel), over in Kurskaya. I soon was giving lessons to half the people in the building. It was my Golden Age. The people were young and full of energy: the guys engaging and talented and the women clever and beautiful. There was money back then -- from 2009-14, cash was spilling all over the place, and so everyone was happy and optimistic. I had limitless access to the copying machine and there was a TV screen next to it where I could watch lovely young Russian women in leotards practicing their yoga.
I ended up writing articles for SNOB that were translated into Russian. I met people who are friends to this day. And the young men and women, who now of course have grown older and entered more deeply the life-corridors they chose -- remain the best I ever saw.
Nevertheless, I used to wonder what Plan B was if the Gas and Oil ran out and a Plan B was needed. I had the sneaking suspicion that Plan B did not exist, but at the time no one seemed to care. Russia had seen many bad times, and here was a good one. Let's party.
Even P***n cut a rather dashing figure. Whether doing judo, flying near the fire in a helicopter, or showing up at the hockey rink, he seemed to have control. I liked the guy. I even bought a jersey with his picture on it.
But it's all gone to Hell, hasn't it? The shadow-hammers of oppression are pounding. I see clearly now what my friends at SNOB insisted was true (in the face of my pink-cloud euphoria), that the government in Russia simply does not care about the people. Censorship of ideas, suppression of free speech, poisonings and imprisonments, and more and more this common yet primitive THEM against US mentality that the Russian government promotes, has moved Russia-- Beautiful Russia -- away from the rest of the world and behind a Curtain which Putin's alchemy seems bent on turning again to IRON.
And Putin himself now strikes me as a bland but increasingly reactionary, pie-faced little troll who shrinks in stature every day, even as his flunkies bury freedom beneath an avalanche of phony accusations and assertions. Plan B now seems to be: Just Hang Onto Power..
I now live in Bulgaria with my Siberian wife of longstanding, Liubov. I still have many Russian students -- new friends to go with the old ones, so my heart is never far away. But what I am seeing -- from a distance, yes, yet very clearly -- is depressing indeed. Covid19 is just the sour icing on a rotting cake. It appears that the citizens are powerless and the only hope is to wait another 20 years when, if we are lucky, the current curmudgeonly crop of tyrants and fools will have ebbed away over a dark horizon and a bright new sunrise will fill the gray Russian skies. Let's cross our fingers.